ISSN 2330-717X

Arab Uprisings Test EU Architecture


The EU has worked hard to implement the institutional reform laid out in the 2007 Lisbon Treaty regarding foreign affairs – but recent uprisings across the Mediterranean region and Middle East test the functionality of this reconstituted architecture.

By Federica Bicchi and Caterina Carta for ISN Insights

The Lisbon Treaty brought a dramatic change to the institutional structure of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), while leaving largely unaltered the decision-making procedures that govern it. As before, the general guidelines for CFSP and Common Security and Defence Policy are unanimously decided on by the European Council (Article 26(1) of the Treaty on the European Union – TEU). The Council of Ministers adopts decisions and actions on the basis of these guidelines (Article 26(2) TEU) and the European Commission maintains its power of initiative in its areas of competence, such as trade, development and humanitarian aid.

The creation of the European External Action Service (EEAS) – and most importantly of the post of High Representative/Vice President of the Commission (HR/VP) – brought about the most astonishing changes to the organization of services dealing with external relations at the European level. The HR/VP chairs the new Foreign Affairs Council and serves as one of the vice-presidents of the Commission. As follows, the HR/VP contributes to the CFSP through its power of initiative (Article 30) and its role in implementation (Article 27(1) TEU), assisted by the EEAS, the Commission and the member states.

The abolition of the rotating presidency for the European Council and for the newly-established Foreign Affairs Council provoked a major reorganization of the Council’s structure. The reorganization of the presidency of the Council was pursued through a plural arrangement for different Council configurations due to a triple organization of functions: the new permanent presidency of the European Council, the main organ for political direction in foreign and security matters (Article 22(1)); the chair, provided by the High Representative, to the newly-established Foreign Affairs Council; and the rotating presidency, which still chairs all other Council configurations.

National diplomats explained that it took time to get used to this new structure. In the first place, at the higher levels, the Council still has a bicephalous structure to deal with foreign affairs, with the EEAS chairing the Political and Security Committee and the rotating presidency chairing the Committee of Permanent Representatives and other relevant Working Groups, such as the Group of External Relations Consellours (RELEX, responsible for horizontal issues and sanctions) and the Trade Policy Committee.

This hybrid institutional arrangement also concerns the division of competence between the Commission and the EEAS, whereas the former still manages the Directorates General dealing with trade, development (DG AIDCO and part of DG Development) and Enlargement. National diplomats confess that, above all, understanding “who does what” between the Commission and the EEAS can be extremely puzzling, even if the two institutions tend to guarantee a good degree of inter-institutional coordination.


Merging services from the Council Secretariat General and the Commission and the incorporation of national diplomats into the EEAS has not only fueled turf battles and rivalries, but has also long absorbed EU attention. The beginning of 2011 abruptly obliged the EU to look beyond its lengthy internal path of reform.

First test: An “era of revolutions”

In Brussels on 16 February, 19 European diplomats from the Maghreb-Mashrek Working Group (MaMa WG) of the Council of Ministers negotiated the terms of the EU-Israel Association Agreement. One diplomat in attendance later confessed that the negotiations were a tour de force that exposed the obvious divisions between ‘pro-Palestinian’ and ‘pro-Israeli’ fronts during a moment of great turmoil for the entire region. The decision on how to reinvent ties with Israel revealed the urgency to tackle all dossiers on the Mediterranean and the Middle East region with a forward-looking and strategically-grounded grip.

According to several national diplomats working in the MaMa WG, the EU managed (against all odds), to have a common position on the support of democratic entreaties both in Tunisia and Egypt. The EEAS presented an option paper on Tunisia on 16January, soon after President Ben Ali had fled the country. This paper has served as a basis for subsequent EU negotiations and decisions on the region. In the case of Tunisia, the EU was effectively able to deploy a wide range of instruments in a relatively quick manner.

The EU’s first reaction was to offer unified support for the self-determination of Tunisian and Egyptian citizens and condemnation of political repression. After this, the EU promptly launched restrictive measures (second pillar instruments) and announced new assistance for Tunisia. The Council adopted a regulation imposing the freezing of assets owned or controlled by members of the former establishment “responsible for the misappropriation of state funds in Tunisia”. In addition, the HR/VP Catherine Ashton announced the intention to allocate further assistance to the country up to €258 million, to add some €17 million worth of new resources and to have open discussions with the European Investment Bank in an effort to mobilize €1 billion this year to support the development of small- and medium-sized businesses and the country’s transportation infrastructure.

As several diplomats of the MaMa WG reported, while there was political agreement on the necessity to act, member states struggled to agree on how best to support democratic transition. Diplomats reported a division among those who favored an immediate response and those who suggested to wait for the Tunisian provisional government (and, more recently, the Egyptian military junta) to suggest what kind of restrictive measures to adopt and against whom. The latter position prevailed.

While awaiting the details of new financial instruments designed to sustain the democratic transition in Tunisia, it seems possible to affirm that the EU was able to speak with one voice, or better, as several voices singing the same tune. A senior diplomat in the MaMa WG subtly pointed out that all EU institutional actors did not spare showing up to speak “in the name of the EU”, with a proliferation of statements on all fronts.

The dramatic developments in Libya and Bahrain questioned the ability of the EU to deliver a convincing response to the ongoing crisis in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Like other international players, the EU at all levels is now frantically working on how to interpret and cope with the domino effect of uprisings that are taking place across the region. The crucial question is how to sustain, rather than lead, the emergence of an endogenous model of democracy in the Arab world, while taking into account the situation’s potential impact on the Middle East Peace Process, the possibility of (democratically elected) Islamic extremist governments coming to power and the increase of illegal refugee flows toward Europe. This requires collective intelligence and information-sharing efforts, and yet, the development of joint intelligence and strategic planning capabilities is still under way in the EU.

In a speech delivered in Bruges last year, the new president of the European Council compared European foreign policy to a convoy of 27 ships with not one, but 27 captains who needed to “find consensus” in order to “establish a sense of strategic direction”. This metaphor effectively captures the challenge that a plural and multi-faceted EU institutional identity poses to foreign-policy making. The long gestation of the new EU external relations architecture, therefore, shows that the challenge of thinking strategically has just started and still has a long way to go.

Dr Federica Bicchi is Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science. Dr Caterina Carta is Research Fellow at the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science. Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

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